MANCHESTER— England’s quest to win a first major tournament since 1966 starts afresh on Thursday as the Three Lions’ Euro 2024 qualifying campaign begins with a testing trip to champions Italy.
After taking time to consider his future following a World Cup quarter-final exit to France in December, Gareth Southgate will remain in charge as England boss for a fourth attempt at glory.
Southgate has overseen a transformation of his country’s fortunes on the international stage.
But after reaching a quarter-final, semi-final and final in their last three major tournaments, anything less than ending a 58-year trophy drought in Germany next year will be seen as a disappointment.
Southgate might have sounded a warning this week about the declining number of England-qualified players playing regularly in the Premier League, but he admitted that is a worry for the long term given the array of talent available to him currently.
Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham proved themselves to be two of the brightest young talents in world football in Qatar.
Harry Kane’s next goal for his country will make him England’s leading scorer in history, while Marcus Rashford’s potential is finally being realised under Erik ten Hag at Manchester United.
An injury to Rashford means he will miss the opening two qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine this week, but Southgate is not short of options with Manchester City duo Phil Foden and Jack Grealish set to battle it out for a place in the side.
For all the progress made under Southgate, though, victory over Germany in the last 16 of Euro 2020 remains his only knockout win against one of the major nations in international football.
The Three Lions outplayed France for much of their meeting in the quarter-finals in Doha three months ago, but still came up short when it mattered.
“These are the sorts of games where we have to show we can go to these places and win,” said Southgate on the prospect of facing Italy in front of an intimidating atmosphere at the Estadio Diego Armanda Maradona in Naples.
“That is the next step for us as a team.”
England fell short on penalties against Italy in the Euro 2020 final on home soil and failed to beat Roberto Mancini’s men in two clashes in the Nations League prior to the World Cup.
The Three Lions did not win a single game in their Nations League campaign but were still able to bounce back close to their best once the World Cup came around.
And Southgate is wary of another drop off in standards during a qualifying process with little jeopardy for the major nations thanks to the expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams.
The top two from a group also containing Ukraine, North Macedonia and Malta will automatically qualify.
“That is the big challenge we have got. To go to a World Cup, everyone wanted to be there and the fight for places was immense, the hunger was there and it was clear. Now you have to start again,” added Southgate.
“I know exactly where our most senior players are with that challenge: they are ready. The (Jordan) Hendersons, the Kanes, they set the tone for that sort of mentality that is going to be needed.”
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